Final Showdown on Spending

Posted November 11, 2011 at 4:43pm

The brinkmanship over government spending that nearly paralyzed Congress earlier this year may finally be over.

Though lawmakers are still expected to cut close to the Friday deadline when current spending expires, another fracas over a government shutdown is unlikely. The House and Senate are expected to clear a short-term stopgap measure this week that is expected to keep the government funded through the week of Dec. 12.

A new roughly monthlong continuing resolution will be part of a package of three appropriations bills that a conference committee expects to approve in time for House consideration Thursday and Senate passage Friday. The spending bill includes the Commerce, Justice and science appropriations bill; the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill; and the Agriculture, rural development, and Food and Drug Administration appropriations bill, along with the CR.

This week’s action on the minibus comes after three prior government shutdown sparring matches this year — twice over finishing work on appropriations and a third time over raising the debt limit.

Still, the path is not completely clear. 

A deeply polarizing debate over how big a mortgage the federal government will back is festering. The Senate raised the limits of loans that are allowed to have government backing in its minibus, but the House did not.

On Thursday, the Club for Growth, a conservative group known for backing primary opponents to moderate Republicans, issued a pre-emptive threat to “key vote” the minibus if it raised the loan limits. “If the conferees strip out this big-government rider, then the club will reassess the bill for consideration of a key vote,” the notice said.

Conservatives are still unhappy about the disaster funding mechanism in the Budget Control Act, the legislative result of the eleventh-hour debt ceiling deal.

Members of the Republican Study Committee have complained to GOP leaders that it was unclear at the time of the law’s passage that the mechanism could result in spending above the discretionary spending caps also in the law.

At the outset of the conference committee, Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee dealing with transportation matters and a close ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), hinted that House leaders could use Democratic votes to bypass the conservatives’ complaints.

“I think we can get bipartisan support for the package,” Latham said.

But there’s a limit to how heavily Boehner can rely on Democratic votes for passage before he begins to alienate too many in his Conference.

The Senate will begin debate this week on a second minibus package, which includes the State and foreign operations appropriations bill, the financial services and general government appropriations bill, and the Energy and water development appropriations bill.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) plans to offer an amendment to the package of spending bills that would continue funding for Nevada’s planned nuclear waste repository Yucca Mountain, a project Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has pledged to end. The Obama administration has also taken steps to end funding for the project.

Kirk said he is exploring his options for forcing a vote on the amendment if Reid tries to keep the proposal from coming to the floor.

“I am new here, but we are going to be sitting down with the parliamentarian to make sure we can,” Kirk said on Thursday.

“I think the need is to keep the program going until Reid is no longer Majority Leader, which I would expect to be in 13 months,” Kirk said Friday off the Senate floor.

Some Democrats may back the amendment. Last year, when she was running for re-election, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) offered a similar amendment during an Appropriations Committee markup. Washington state is home to the Energy Department’s 586-square-mile Hanford Site. The site’s works have generated billions of gallons of nuclear waste, which must now be cleaned up, removed or remediated.

Murray’s amendment was defeated. However, one Democrat and all but one Republican joined Murray in support.

Kirk also plans to offer an amendment that would sanction the Central Bank of Iran in an effort to economically cripple the Iranian government.

The amendment comes after Kirk and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) spearheaded the idea in an Aug. 9 letter signed by 92 Senators and sent to President Barack Obama.

Kirk, ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, also predicted that House Republicans would object to any catchall, end-of-year appropriations package and instead will push for a yearlong CR.

“There are a few of us who still go to the House and talk to House Members and a rancid piece of trash headed over there, hot off the Xerox machine with a ‘trust us’ note is not a viable strategy,” Kirk predicted. “In the end, the House will look at a CR formula that spends less.”

Kirk added that the House and Senate Appropriations panels “miscalculated wildly last year when it destroyed its influence” by failing to win support for passage of a Democratic-authored omnibus.

“I think [a yearlong CR] is clearly where we are headed,” Kirk said. “I think the problem is that Senate Democratic leaders so hate the House that [they] don’t understand how the House operates. I think White House legislative affairs actually doesn’t understand the House either.”